Southern special teams coach Marty Biagi says he has just one restriction when he chooses players for his units — “I can’t use the quarterbacks.”
Other than that, head coach Dawson Odums has given him carte blanche to put together the Jaguars return and coverage units, which has paid big dividends as Southern prepares to play Grambling for the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division title in the Bayou Classic on Nov. 29.
“It’s really simple,” Biagi said. “Why would we want to use our backups and put our star returner back there and let him go get knocked out? We want to put our best guys on the field just like it was a running play. It’s like anything else. We try to get our best athletes on the field.”
Biagi said he learned that philosophy while an assistant on Bobby Petrino’s staff at Arkansas. The Razorbacks were playing Alabama and saw Crimson Tide stars such as Julio Jones and Trent Richardson, who would go on to be first-round draft choices in the NFL participating on special teams.
“We learned real quick that if they can use their starters, then we better be ready to use ours,” Biagi said.
It’s a philosophy that Odums shares.
“If you’re going to play on this team, you’ve got to play on special teams,” Odums said. “I’ve learned that in coaching and watching other teams. Some coaches play their starters on special teams and some don’t. We play guys. Whatever guys are good enough to be put on it we’re going to put them out there.”
The Jaguars begin their first practice of the week with special teams periods every Monday. They devote time to special teams in each subsequent practice for a total of about two hours a week.
“We practice it a lot and I believe it pays off for us,” Odums said.
Southern’s return specialists, whom Odums referred to as “deadly”, have been the eye-catchers as Willie Quinn, Danny Johnson and Jaleel Richardson have each returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season and Quinn has returned a punt for a touchdown.
“They understand that it’s almost by committee,” Biagi said. “They take pride in understanding that they’re going to get their shot, but to be on the team for that play they have to be willing to do the blocking scheme if it’s not kicked to them.
“So many times if you get that returner who’s not getting the ball, he kind of half-blocks —and for us it’s all based on, do your job and do your role. So we believe that if you can execute your role regardless of whether you’re getting the ball or not, then it’s going to be a win-win for the whole team.”
Southern leads the SWAC with an average of 25.3 yards per kickoff return and it ranks third with an average of 14.6 yards per punt return.
“We go hard every day in practice on special teams because it can lead us to a championship,” Quinn said.
The Jaguars coverage units don’t have statistics to match those of the return units, ranking fourth in net punting (37.0) and sixth in kickoffs (35.6.). But they have improved progressively since several starters began returning after being sidelined early in the season by injury or academic certification issues.
“The beginning of the season we had some huge busts in the kickoff cover team,” Biagi said, “but each week we’ve gotten better.”
In the first six games the Jaguars allowed 24.0 yards per kickoff return and in the last five they have allowed 18.2.
“We were getting worn down earlier in the year because we didn’t have the depth,” Odums said. “Our backups were playing and our backups were playing special teams too. Early in the year we suffered from snaps, but we got our depth back up. So we’re able to put more guys on special teams.”
Though the special teams feature several players who start on offense and defense, they also feature key players who saw those units as their fastest — maybe even only — route to the field.
Richardson, who was one of the players sidelined while awaiting certification, is a safety who plays far more on special teams than defense.
“Coach Biagi has found 11 guys totally committed to playing their role,” Richardson said. “It gives a lot of people the chance to play. Some people came to Southern thinking they might not be able to play college football, and they get a chance to walk on, and a lot of scholarship players aren’t getting playing time at their select position — but they’re still getting a chance to be on the field.
“We don’t have selfish players. We have players who just want to contribute to the team any way they can.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.